Okra is one of my favorite plants. Not only do I find it delicious, I also find it stunningly beautiful. Belonging to the mallow and hibiscus family, it is also closely related to cotton and cocoa. It can stand tall in a garden, as most varieties can reach heights of six feet, with a few dwarf cultivars only reaching three to four feet. Okra is commonly known as the green pod you see in the grocery store, but it can also be found in burgundy, yellow, orange, and pink.
As a deeply historical import to the American South by way of the transatlantic slave trade, it had been documented as early as 1679 in the colony of Virginia. By the early 1800s, okra could be found throughout the Southeast and as far north as Pennsylvania. When the Southern ports were blockaded by the Union Navy as an attempt to sooner end the war, coffee was among numerous items that were disrupted. Other forms of substitution were considered and investigated. One of these substitutions was okra seeds, dried and ground into a caffeine-free alternative for plantations and soldiers alike.
Okra was said to be the best substitution, and in an Austin Sate Gazette article from 1861, it was announced: “Save your okra seeds. Okra is the best substitute for coffee that is known. Besides this, the okra plant will kill out noxious weeds, even coco, better than any other known means. The okra plant makes a shade so dense, that nothing will grow in it. Gardens that have been allowed to go to the weeds have in this way been cleared of them. Fields may be in the same way. An acre of okra will produce soon enough to furnish a plantation of fifty [slaves] with coffee in every way equal to that imported from Rio.” And this was just the beginning.
Okra is a highly debated topic when it comes to the supper table; it’s either loved or loathed.
It may appear to be an unassuming vegetable, but it is the exact opposite. It is in fact a super food that is rolling in potassium, folic acid, vitamin K and vitamin C. It is high in fiber, while also being low in fat and calories. Okra’s profusely diverse array of preparations are vast: from simply enjoying fresh off the stalk, pickled, battered and fried, to its supporting role in a pot of field peas, or the viscosity agent of a gumbo. The options are limited only to your imagination. Not only are the seed pods edible, but the young tender leaves may be cooked like other green leafy vegetables such as collards or beets; the flowers are also tasty with a slight asparagus taste and can be used in salads. Just remember that flowers give yield to okra pods, so don’t miss out on a full harvest!
The sliminess attributed to the pods are from a mucilaginous agent that is released during cooking, most often noted when boiled. The mucilage is an excellent source of soluble fiber, but can be reduced if cooked with acidic agents or for a long period of time.
Okra has transcended divides, both of race and class in the modern day. It is also being used in war-torn and developing countries as a way of combating malnutrition and to eradicate food insecurity. This has been most noted in recent years during the aftermath of the Syrian Conflicts and in other areas of the Middle East.
Okra will always have a place in my heart, in my garden, and on my plate. Here, I am sharing a tried and true family recipe that has withstood the ravages of time and is still enjoyed by my Alabama family regularly. This is incredibly easy–even the staunchest opponent of okra will find it difficult to argue against these crunchy, earthy rounds.
2 cups okra, cut in round pieces
1 1/4 cups self-rising cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup lard or vegetable shortening
In a large mixing bowl with a spoon mix together all ingredients except okra and oil. Fold in the okra. Heat the oil in a large skillet until faint wisps of smoke appear (we use cast iron due to the even heating).
Drop by spoonful into the hot oil. (I use a 1/4 cup measuring cup for each fritter). Fry on one side about 2 minutes or until good and crusty, turn and fry the other side. Drain on paper towels. Slather with butter and enjoy!
photo credit: Sonika Argarwal